Yet Pelosi refused to step aside and continued leading Democrats, even after coming up short in three more elections, and late Tuesday night she marched on stage with a new label: the face of victory.
On a night when Democrats suffered losses in the Senate and in some marquee governor’s races, Pelosi’s House Democrats delivered a resounding midterm triumph that hands them the majority and all the power that entails. They can set the agenda through their committee chairmen and investigate President Trump and his administration.
Nothing becomes law, for the next two years, unless they support it.
“Remember this feeling: Know the power to win,” Pelosi told a cheering crowd at a Capitol Hill hotel ballroom.
At 78, she is poised to once again make history. Should she overcome some internal opposition, Pelosi will become the first person to return to the speaker’s post since Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) in 1955. Moreover, no one has ever gone eight years between losing and then reclaiming that coveted gavel.
Democrats will formally nominate their candidate for speaker after Thanksgiving, so Pelosi will spend the next few weeks trying to firm up her support and chart a course for how she would lead the newly empowered Democrats in their confrontations with Trump.
She took a call from the president shortly before midnight, after she had spent most of Tuesday pledging to find some issues on which to work with him and vowing to fight him on others where Democrats are opposed. Her daughter, documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, followed Pelosi around, filming moments throughout the day.
“We will strive for bipartisanship, seeking common ground, as we are responsible to do,” she told the crowd of supporters earlier in the evening. “But when we cannot find that common ground, standing our ground.”
The victory, for certain, tasted sweeter for the chocolate-loving leader because Democrats used the increasingly popular ACA, once derided as Obamacare by Republicans, to their advantage. She repeatedly kept candidates focused not on the latest Trump scandal, but on the GOP effort to repeal the law and eliminate provisions such as a ban on insurers increasing rates for consumers with preexisting health conditions.
On the eve of Tuesday’s vote, she sent one final reminder not to take the bait from Trump on a culture war. “Democrats have kept the focus on the health and economic security of the American people,” she wrote Monday in a “Dear Colleague” letter to her caucus.
Republicans and their allied super PACs made Pelosi the central villain of attack ads against Democrats, more so than in 2010, but the effort fizzled. Trump was a much bigger factor in the election than Pelosi, according to polling.
Pelosi’s internal Democratic critics have questioned her effectiveness after so many electoral defeats. They regularly talked about a new generation of leadership, passing the torch from her and the other septuagenarian leaders, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), to a new crop of ambitious Democrats who have been itching to take more power.
And those critics came from each direction.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) charted the course for winning in Trump-leaning districts in his special election victory in March, vowing not to vote for Pelosi for speaker. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) heralded the rise of a more aggressive liberal wing that saw Pelosi as too timid for these Trumpian times with her upset victory in New York’s primary in June.
This new majority, when all the races are called, is likely to be the smallest since 2001, when Republicans held the edge by a handful of seats. It will be dramatically smaller than the nearly 30-seat margin Pelosi had in 2009 and 2010, her last years as speaker.
Her biggest selling point, so much experience, also had been considered her biggest weakness, particularly in an era when a reality TV show star can win the presidency and a 28-year-old former waitress like Ocasio-Cortez can topple a 20-year incumbent.
But these are very turbulent times, and with Democrats losing ground in the Senate, and no clear national party leader otherwise, Pelosi is going to sell herself as a steady hand who knows how to deliver.
“We want somebody who’s been to the circus before,” said John Lawrence, her chief of staff during her four-year stint as speaker, which began last decade. “It is not a job for on-the-job training.”
To win back the gavel she will require a majority, at least 218 votes, probably all from her side of the aisle, and after that she will have to balance the needs of those new freshmen trying to win reelection in swing districts and liberal upstarts demanding constant confrontation with Trump.
Lawrence sported a “Madam Speaker 2007” pin Tuesday night, a memento from the day Pelosi broke the House’s glass ceiling and was sworn in as speaker almost 12 years ago. Back then some Democrats viewed the Bush White House as complicit in a war crime for initiating the Iraq War under the mistaken pretense that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction.
“They wanted to move straight to impeachment,” Lawrence recalled.
Instead, Pelosi empowered her committee chairmen to conduct deep investigations into the administration. She brushed aside impeachment resolutions like those brought by then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).
It’s instructive for how she will probably handle the far left flank of her caucus on matters involving Trump. By 2008, as the economy collapsed, voters felt comfortable handing the White House to Barack Obama and giving Democrats massive majorities on Capitol Hill.
Pelosi will want to replicate that effort to create an easier path to a Democratic victory in the 2020 presidential campaign. “The first thing we have to do for voters is to demonstrate that we can be trusted with the levers of government,” Lawrence said.